Solving the doctor shortage

Considering hiring GPs from overseas for your practice? Before you invest money and time, make sure you’ve done your homework.

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Skills shortages are being felt across healthcare, particularly in rural areas where an undersupply of doctors is increasingly apparent.

What’s causing this undersupply of health practitioners? Primarily, it’s because there aren’t enough medical graduates to fill ongoing full-time GP positions. Despite more doctors graduating from medical schools nationally, a greater percentage of them are female. And as some choose to leave the workforce to have children, total workforce hours for GPs are reduced.

Hiring from overseas is one solution to help fill the supply gap. But before investing time and money to pursue this option, it’s important to consider not only the best ways of recruiting from offshore but also how you can boost your chances of retaining overseas staff.

Retaining staff from overseas

Helping with cultural assimilation is key. In order for doctors and their families to feel part of a rural community and to find their feet in their new job, ongoing support from colleagues is important, including access to a second opinion for a diagnosis.

Newly arrived doctors, like all doctors, are keen to stay up to date with medical advances and techniques. Access to that type of education tends to be city-based, so it’s worthwhile trying to make such information available to rural-based doctors also.

Case study: Tristar Medical Group

Tristar has 30 medical centres throughout Victoria and New South Wales. Its International Medical Graduates Program, launched when Tristar was formed in July 2003, was one of the first in-house education programs provided en masse and in rural areas for general practice.

Tristar engages GP educators in general practice to be responsible for providing ongoing training to both Australian and international medical graduates preparing to become specialists in general practice. Beginning on the first day of their job, training is delivered during working hours in each doctor’s consulting room, leaving after-hours free for family time.

For overseas trainees, Tristar provides an accountant, legal advice and a bank account when they arrive, plus help with accommodation and both advice and assistance for car purchases.

“Doctors generally join us under a 457 visa,” says Tristar spokesperson, Kylie El-Sheikh, “and this process includes criminal checks from the country of origin and any countries lived in for the previous 10 years.”

El-Sheikh has some cautionary advice for those sponsoring overseas staff; be crystal clear about what finance and health expenses you may incur for the employee and also for his or her accompanying family. “Sponsorship responsibilities are onerous under the 457 visa. It’s important to make sure the doctor and his/her family have comprehensive health insurance coverage for the entire period until they gain permanent residency.”

Another important point, adds El-Sheikh, is to ensure the GP will be able to fulfil the requirements of the medical board to enable registration. “All doctors are required to undertake an international check and verification of their qualifications and provide references,” she says. “Points to consider are previous experience, plus a good attitude towards professional development and towards the profession in general, as this will help to determine how the doctor will settle into life inAustralia.”

Select a doctor who’ll be a good fit for both your organisation and the area. Be mindful that if the doctor’s family are not age-appropriate for the town (i.e., their children are older and require good senior education), the doctor is unlikely to remain in the job as his family will need to relocate or the doctor will remain on his own, explains El-Sheikh.

“This makes it stressful for the GP,” she says. “Make sure the doctor understands every aspect of the job before he or she joins – surprises won’t go down well. You need to paint a realistic picture about what a doctor can expect on arrival. That way, the doctor is prepared and will be happy in the placement.”

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